Sunday, September 18, 2011

Italian scientists accused of not predicting deadly earthquake now go to court

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Bernardo de Bernardinis, former deputy director of the Italian civil protection department
Bernardo de Bernardinis

Science on trial, continued: The case of the Italian scientists accused of failing to predict a deadly earthquake that struck in 2009, and the government twit who had previously twisted their words to make it sound like there was no danger when they said nothing of the sort, now heads to court next week over charges of manslaughter:

Next week six scientists and an official go on trial in Italy for manslaughter over the earthquake in L'Aquila that killed 309 people two years ago.

This extraordinary case has attracted international attention because science itself seemed to be on trial, with the seven defendants apparently charged for failing to predict the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck on the night of 6 April 2009.

Scientists cannot yet say when an earthquake is going to happen with any precision, even in a seismically active zone. And over 5,000 scientists from around the world have signed a letter supporting those on trial.

Yet the lawyer for one of the scientists, in an interview with Newsnight, said it is possible his client will be convicted:

"I'm afraid that like an earthquake, nothing in this case is predictable. Let's not forget, this trial is happening in L'Aquila, where the entire population has been personally affected, and awaiting a sentence that should not happen, but could happen," Marcello Milandri said.

Prosecutors claim that the trail is not about accusing science, itself, of failing to predict the earthquake, but about finding out whether or not the seismologists did their job correctly and conveyed their findings accurately to the population. Of course, this is a moot issue as we already know that the scientists’ true findings – that an earthquake was unlikely, but still firmly within the realm of possibility – were distorted by then-civil protection department deputy director Bernardo de Bernardinis, who told everyone that there were no risks at hand. The seismologists merely reported what the evidence told them; as usual, it’s an arse-covering functionary who preferred to hide the real possible dangers from the people at large. It’s his head that should be on the chopping block, not those of reputable scientists who, by all accounts, did their job exactly as they were supposed to.

Science is all about best guesses and probabilities. Scientists can be more or less certain about various findings based on the quantity and quality of available evidence, but in the end, all they can do is explain how likely a given phenomenon is to occur. It’s up to officials to do their own jobs competently and guide the people accordingly. Blaming the scientists in any measure for this, or any other calamity, is unfair and ludicrous.